Pastors in poverty

July 27, 2014

Most of us have seen this coming for a decade, but it’s still startling to read the headlines in the Atlantic: "The Vanishing of Middle Class Clergy."

None of this is news. We know pastors who feed their children with food stamps.

When disastrous things happen, clergy have learned to give one another money because sometimes we’re the only ones in the church (or the neighborhood) who can’t go to the church with a financial problem.

We know pastors who covertly stuff the rice from the food pantry in their bag.

We know the frustration when the church ladies begin to say disparaging things about our clothes and offer to take us on a little shopping trip to the outlet mall.

We have stifled the laughter when church members ask us to join the country club or wonder why we’re not sending our kids to the private school.

We know the devastation of asking the church for a need-based cost-of-living raise, and have them refuse.

We have seen how people go into seminary debt, but have no church position at the end of their study.

We have watched as churches turn to lay leaders, because they’re easier to hire and cost less money.

We have seen how denominational bodies ask for a multitude of requirements of their candidates on top of the M.Div.—additional years of study, psychological exams, clinical pastoral education, or years of internships with no pay—without the knowledge that they are forcing more debt on individuals who are going into poverty-wage calls.

We have had those awkward realizations of the incredible income disparity between pastors with the same experience and education.

We know white men make more than women and racial-ethnic minorities.

But we also know poverty wages, discrimination, and disparity does not have to be our future. Our denominations are places of incredible abundance. Look around at the property, buildings, stocks, and assets. Churches close and leave the assets to the denomination. This might be the richest time in our denominational lives. So, why are our pastors in poverty? What can we do about it?

1) Make our pay more equitable. My first year out of seminary, a pastor informed me that I was getting paid much less than the janitors at his church, and he was being paid almost 100k more than I was. I know he had skills and experience that I didn't have, but a six-figure disparity is just wrong.

2) Begin to pay pastors from a centralized body, with attention to experience and education, and without attention to good teeth and full head of hair.

3) Does that feel like too much to ask? Well, then we could at least begin having some serious discussions about pay equity in our denomination's governing bodies.

4) Think about salary off-sets. They could work like carbon-trading. If a church wants to pay their pastor over a certain amount, that's great. But then they need to give money to a lower-income pastor in his or her denomination. We should not be mirroring our culture when it comes to the 1% and the 99. Especially since the disparities often exist on the very same church staff!

5) Call out the discriminatory practices in our denomination. Graph the salaries of the pastors in your denomination's local area. Note the women, men, and people of color. Can you see unfair distinctions? Can you draw attention to it? 

6) Renew our commitment to educated clergy. Historically, our denominations required educated clergy. Now, without hardly any discussion, we have quit requiring it and allowed churches to hire lay pastors. And to put this in stark economic terms, this causes higher clergy unemployment and drives down the value of our educated clergy. If a church cannot afford an educated clergy person, then a denominational body can help pay.

7) Be mindful of ordination requirements. We often ask people to meet requirements that are way out of proportion to what they will be paid.

8) Speed up the call process. In some denominations, it can take 18 months for a church to call a pastor. All along the way, they have the denominational leaders telling them to slow down and not rush it. Meanwhile there’s 30 people worshiping on Sunday morning, and the number is dwindling. There’s just no reason it should take that long. Often interim ministers last longer than installed pastors. New members are hesitant to join, people begin to slack on their giving. It’s a waste of time and money for the church and for pastors looking for positions.

9) Pay pastors more. Enough said.


Merger may be the best option

Dear Carol:

I think the most logical answer is for mainline Protestant congregations to begin to look seriously at merging. The 'elephant in the room' is that most congregations in denominations that really value trained, highly educated clergy, are shrinking steadily. A 200-member congregation can't reasonably expect to be able to afford the same level of pastor it had when it had 400 members fifteen years earlier. When that congregation shrinks to 90 members, it can't reasonably expect to have a pastor at all. As you well know, in a congregation undergoing financial stress, the focus turns from the congregation's stated mission, to 'how do we get enough money to pay the bills'. Nobody feels called to join a church with that kind of a focus. To me, it makes all the sense in the world for 'mainline' Protestant Churches to begin merging into large, financially healthy congregations, with a strong senior, and junior pastor. This large congregation could then focus most of its attention on its true mission, and even have some money left to devote to mission!. To me, it seems our like 'mainline churches may no longer have the luxury of being split over relatively minor theological or governance issues, and we need to exercise humility and be willing to compromise with, and join, other mainline Christians. In my town, I can think of five shrinking 'mainline' congregations all located within about a mile of each other, all of whom have to be struggling to some degree. If they were to merge into one or two congregations, we'd have two financially-strong large mainline churches, with 500+ members.

PS: And, I am completely in agreement with your point #8. It takes us 18-24 months to replace a pastor, when a 'fortune 500' company can find a new CEO in 6 months. A 24- months interim process is a relic of bygone days that we Presbyterians can not afford any more.

Well said--Living that now

I agree with your assessments. I have been in ministry for over 30 years. Up until ten years ago, I was paid decent. However, changing denominations and rigid transfer ordination requirements, I will be paid less. I am seminary trained, not however with an MDiv, but with degrees in church music and Christian Education. Took eight units of CPE. I'm not crying in my beer, though.

I have been appointed to a wonderful church in a small town. The church is loving and really desires to the church to grow. I am near retirement and my wife makes a good salary, so we can make it.

I feel for my sisters and brothers who are suffering in a diminishing profession. I agree that smaller and larger churches merge to help stop the hemorraging. From my experience, there are some churches who do not wish to do anything to help themselves or their pastor. The opinion is, "If it's good enough for us, it's good enough for our pastor."

It's time for some of our churches to wake up and walk a mile in our shoes. The pressures of living in a fish bowl and trying to hob-nob with our members who are better healed than us has to change--and change soon.

And missionaries too!

Pastors of congregations in a presbytery at least have the option of asking for a raise. Their spouse may take a job that allows them to pay the bills while the pastor follows a call. The people in the pews where pastors preach know, or can easily find out, what they are paying the people who serve them.
PCUSA missionaries cannot ask for a raise. The best a couple can expect is two partial salaries, but many missionary couples split a single salary. While pastors move to bigger churches for bigger salaries, missionaries remain in their calls for thirty or more years with little more than cost of living raises. The spouse is not allowed to do something (like sell Avon, for example) for extra income.
And when missionaries speak in a church, the people in the pew have no way to find out if they are adequately compensated or not - short of asking the missionary, who will in all seriousness reply that yes, by God's grace, they have everything they need.
PCUSA and other mainline denominations have some serious thinking to do.


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